Thursday, August 18, 2011

(Things) Really Go Bump in the Night

It's dark out here.

For so long, well, since June 1, we've had so much sunlight, that the darkness tonight seems novel, and impenetrable.

But penetrate we must, because my dog Jacob needs to go out.

OK. Let's go. I leash him up and my hand's on the door knob ... Oh. Wait. It's really dark out there.

And we're nearly wilderness camping along the remote 450-mile Cassiar Highway, Route 37. It's a two-lane paved/gravel road flowing down from Yukon into British Columbia  with burps of rustic population every 60 to 100 miles. 

So we're next to nowhere. The most next to nowhere we've ever been. Really.

And Jacob wants to go out into that menacing dark. Where, in the past few days of driving,  we've seen bears, an arctic wolf, a coyote and signs for moose and caribou. And then every half hour or so, we see a car, truck, motorhome or motorcycle.

OK. Now I'm spooked. What's OUT THERE, lurking, salivating for fresh blood? A grizzly, needing to pack on more weight to overwinter?  A cannibalistic wolf, lying in wait to savagely destroy my dog?  Or maybe a crazed mountainman, really ticked because we disturbed his peace?  Maybe all three!!!


Jacob whines. I realize the inevitable. Grab my flashlight. Turn the porch light on. Step out.

What's that beyond the light? There. And over there? I swing the flashlight back and forth like it's a gun, ready to fire at anything that moves. Jacob trots along, gaily. How can he leave the protection of the porch light, where my feet are  frozen, and my arms swing that flashlight wildly to save my life?

Hello? What's that sound?  If it's an animal, maybe I can scare it away by making lots of noise: "I'm here," I whine. "You stay there. OK. I'm here, no need to come near to me."

I've had enough. We're going to die out here. I must save my dog. And me. I reel Jacob in and we both climb back to safety.

Back to where light wards off all dangers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Rock-Solid Friends

We're heading north into British Columbia after visiting Skagway, Alaska, driving along the South Klondike Highway. Others encouraged us to travel this beautiful route. And we see why.

The miraculous landscape turns surreal at times. A handful of miles before Canadian Customs, we enter an eye-popping realm, where sub-alpine flowers in full bloom brush a moonscape with watercolors.  And then the flowers and color disappear, replaced by endless scenes of solid rock, some rolling, some jagged and ... wait ... what was that?

Off to my right. Movement?  And then again, here. Look.

WOW! What am I seeing? Scattered rocks? Wait. Little piles of rocks? NO! Rock PEOPLE!

Look at them all. There must be thousands of them built alongside the road, standing on multiple ledges in a barren landscape of mostly rock. But they're really hard to see; they blend into the background. Rock into rock. And as I turn my head left and right, they pop into my peripheral views, appearing to move. Menacing me with their outstretched arms. 


We stop. Get out.  I want to salute.

Because there is an army of these silent sentinels, thousands and thousands of piles of rocks assembled to look like little people, guarding the land as far back as I can see.

I walk among these foot-high protectors, staring, my mouth  open. I swear I see movement again. Back there. Over here.

I know it's not so. These are rocks, solid minerals. Collected and assembled by tourists like me. 
So I do the same.

I climb back into the ranks (just a little), collect a pile  of jagged rocks and struggle to build my own little man. When I'm done, he looks more like a pile or rocks than a little warrior. But he's mine. And I'm proud.

We take his picture (at right), salute, then drive off.

At Customs, the border patrol guard tells us these rock warriors are inuksuk, a native word meaning "in the likeness of humans." They are little  markers People of the North build as signposts in a landscape barren of trees and other natural landmarks. They build them, he says, to point the way home, mark a burial site or good hunting grounds, and even to designate a place where powerful spirits dwell.

Sometimes, they build them as warriors, to act as fellow hunters, to scare animals right into a trap.

So, I'm thinking as we drive away, these little warriors  are sentient beings with an inner energy. They serve. They survive.

And I imagine the gang we left behind is, at this moment, springing to life to help my little pile of rocks become a warrior, just like them.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Out Of Their Mouths

Colorful leaves obscure Dillon the Screech Owl. 

About 400 Bald Eagles live in Haines, AK.

In the fall, that number swells to 4,000 when a late salmon run chokes the  Chilkat River.

So now I'm here, in the Valley of the Eagle. And to learn more about them, I visit the American Bald Eagle Foundation.

Once inside, I mosey around and watch a trainer feed Scottie, a resident (and permanently disabled) Bald Eagle who eyes me with mistrust. Then I see a barred owl on a perch. And he's watching me. His hoot-owl eyes are like saucers. Eerie.

Next up is a  red-tailed hawk, who also watches me as I watch him. His eyes shiny, beady. Then I see Dillon.

Dillon (I learn his name later) is a tiny,  tiny screech owl. He's so small, and blends in so well with the bark and leaves on his perch I almost miss him.

He catches my eye because his eyes are squinty. Little slits. Next to him is a little girl, maybe 10 or 12,  with long dark hair, just standing there, wearing a huge heavy leather glove. I look around for Mom or Dad, thinking they'll take her picture soon.

I'm sure this is a touristy photo op, which means there's a person nearby to answer questions about the bird.

I walk closer and, yes, I see the woman. About 60. Wearing a badge. So I ask: "Is he nocturnal?" She sort of nods "Yes," but she doesn't look at me.  "Well," I continue, trying to keep her attention, "I notice his eyes are closed down to slits ... is that what he usually looks like, or is he dozing?"

"Lydia," the woman says, ignoring me,  "This is your question."

I'm confused. Who's Lydia and why is this woman giving away my question?

Then, the little girl with the long brown hair and big leather glove speaks. "Oh, Dillon is asleep. He sleeps pretty much all day." And then she smiles. And with her eyes, she begs for more questions. I donate a few: "Will Dillon ever go free." Oh, no. He's blind in one eye." "How can you tell?"  When he opens his eyes, the pupils are different. One large, one small.

Oh my. This girl's  not just a pretty picture. She's a smart little cookie and she's in charge of Dillon. And so we go back and forth, me with questions, her with answers. Answers she provides with grace and confidence. 

I learn not just about Dillon, but I find out Lydia is a junior ranger of sorts, and went through a foundation training program to  earn the right to handle the birds. She's even on YouTube, she tells me.

And then the woman, the one who didn't want to steal Lydia's show, tells her the time's up. Dillon has to go back to his cage.

So he and Lydia leave. I walk away, too, thinking "out of the mouths of babes ..."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dancing With The Clouds

We're driving south on Haines Road in Yukon, Canada, on our way to Haines, AK. Most people take a marine ferry to get to Haines, but we want to drive, to see the landscape. And maybe some wild animals, too. So we drive. 

We see several pairs of trumpeter swans (monstrous birds, about 30 pounds each) gliding across Lake Kathleen. And a baby black bear runs right in front of us. We stop and look for momma, but she's not there.

And then, oh my, look at the clouds.

Thick, white marshmallows climbing thousands of feet high and dozens of miles long. Sticking to the sides of the St. Elias Mountains, leaving the tops to peak through, like space ships hovering quietly, stealthily. At times, the clouds morph into fog, and then a fine mist. So we see the entire mountain without its shroud. Massive. Beautiful.

Glaciers cling to the tops and sides of nearly each peak.  And the sun plays hide and seek. Peekaboo. And loses, each time, as the fog rises up, back into clouds, thick marshmallows. David to the sun's Goliath.

And then, as we drive above the tree line, as the temperature dips from the 50s into the 40s, we see the clouds just up ahead thinning into fog. And we're going to drive right through the mist. So I hold on.

But there's no mist. Instead, it's remarkable. The thinning wispy clouds twist, bounce and swirl into elongated shapes. Almost human. They waltz just above the creek beds, hovering, gently swaying and turning. Stretching high and low, always moving. Swishing.

And now we're driving right into them. Like we're taking a spin on an ethereal dance floor. With partners who dissolve. Dissipate. Then reappear as marshmallows, stuck to the sides of mountains. As if we'd never met.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I'll Kiss 'n'Tell

We're standing at an overlook along the Matanuska River, where  glacial meltwater curlycues  along miles and miles of a   very wide riverbed. Towering mountains in the distance frame this magnificent view, lit by a rising full moon.

A car pulls up.

I look down (the overlook is high above the parking area) and I see a couple of kids, teens really, hop out of the car, and then jog up the side of this little hill. They ignore the long sidewalk we used to get up here, the one enclosed on both sides by a protective fence. Instead, they jog up the hill (on a well-worn path, I notice) and both leap over the fence.  

They see us, nod hello, and begin to  amble around separately, looking at the view, the trees, an interpretive sign about   Alaska's gold rush days.

After no more than two minutes,  they leap back over the fence and scramble down to their car.

Odd. I turn back to look at the abundant scenery.

I hear another car. I turn around to watch.  Two kids climb out. Jog up the hill. Leap over the fence. Say hello. Wander around. Leave. A third car. A repeat performance.

I  think we've found Alaska's Blueberry Hill, its own Lovers Lane, alongside the Glenn Highway just north of Palmer.

I tell Allen my theory, we mock a kiss for our camera, then return to our motorhome. But we don't drive away. Instead, we stay for the night. And listen as the cars come and -- eventually -- go. Not as quickly, now the chaperones  are gone.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Walk Along The Wildside

Allen's about three feet ahead of me when I see it.

A bear.

Sitting at the water's edge along the Russian River in Alaska, about five feet away from Allen.

And he's looking at Allen.

But Allen isn't looking back.

So I do what the park rangers in Denali National Park told me to do if I ever encounter a bear out in the wild: Raise my arms and hands over my head and wave them back and forth (to make myself look bigger) and engage in idle chatter (so he knows I don't sound like prey).

It doesn't matter what I say to this bear, I just need to start talking. So, I chat away:  "Yoohoo, Mr. Bear. Oh, Allen, look. There's a bear. Hey, Mr. Bear. We are here. Do you see us?"

So Allen looks to his right and sees the bear looking at him. I freeze. A little panicked. That bear is close enough to leap into Allen's face. So what does Allen do? Raise his hands so he looks imposing? Engage in conversation?

No. He grabs his camera and steps closer to take a picture!!! LOOK OUT!

But, the bear just shrugs.

Well, it sure looks like a shrug to me. He lifts his right shoulder up and down. And then I see what's really happening. He's eating. He's got a salmon in his paw and he's raising it up to his mouth, ripping off a hunk, then lowering his paw while he chews.  And Allen keeps taking pictures.

But I notice Allen is also taking the offensive. He's raised his camera over his head so he looks imposing while he's taking pictures. Touché.

(In the picture I snapped, shown above, you can barely see the bear's ears above the tall grass to the right. Here are Allen's pictures.)

Within seconds, Mr. Bear finishes his  salmon and ambles out into the water for another. With a single, effortless swipe, he snags  a fish, then walks back toward us. Although this time, he anchors himself under a tree, behind some tall grass. Out of our sight. Which means if he gets cranky and wants to vent, we won't see it coming.

So we walk away, still talking, and now grinning. Because we finally met a bear. Out in the wild. But we're no fools. All the while we're smiling, we're looking back over our shoulders to make sure we left that experience behind.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiking to a Wild River -- Comfortably

The sign says "To The River." So I head that way. 

And I'm excited. Because I'm hiking to Alaska's wild Russian River, where salmon and bears compete for life. Literally.

The fish need to move upstream to spawn; the bears need to eat them to make it though the pounding winters.

It's also where anglers stand shoulder to shoulder, thigh deep in the river's icy waters, trying to land a sockeye before the bears do.

And I'm going to hike into the wilderness, this Alaskan wilderness,  to watch the competition.

So I  follow the arrow on the "To the River" sign and the first thing I see is a wooden fence, at the edge of a hill (I guess too many people have rolled down that hill). I walk a bit to my right. And look! Steps! Not the kind hikers fashion out of sticks and stones. But sturdy industrial ones, made of steel. They descend a pretty steep decline. 

Hmmm. Man-made steps. Fencing. More steps. Then I'm at the river. But I'm not walking on vegetation or mud or even gravel. I'm on a rubbery mat that gently cushions each of my steps. 

I'm not making this up. There's a cushy mat softening each of my steps at a popular wilderness fishing site. And there's nothing to step over or trip on. No stones, roots. No dirt! 

And there's a railing between me and the river. And openings  every now and then lead to a cushioned platform, where anglers stow their gear while fishing the rapids.

And I see just a few people -- not a throng -- standing in the water casting flies for trout and Dolly Varden. One kid (pictured) caught two sockeyes, one (the red one) too far past the eating stage. But the kid grabbed him anyway. 

As I watch, he walks away, dragging his catch behind him, on the rubbery mat. Next to the fence.

 And I think, 'What's with this cushy stuff?" Where is Alaska's wilderness?

I hike back home up a natural path I find cut nto the hilside, one that is steep (makes me breathe hard) and rocky and criss-crossed with vegetation and   sticks. I feel better. More outdoorsy.

Back in my motor home, I'm so troubled by the excessive human intervention into Alaska's wilderness, that I Google a reason. I Google anything that might help me understand why the federal government would let someone wreck the wilderness.

What I find shames me.

Nobody wrecked this wilderness.  Back in 2005, Alaska's Department of Natural Resources got a federal grant for $378,000 to make a part of the trail --- about a mile -- useable by people who are unsteady on their feet, or use  crutches or a wheelchair to get around.  Now they, too, can go watch the salmon swim upstream to spawn. Now they, too, can cast their lines in the water.

Had I started my hike a little farther south, I would have seen the ramp (no steps) at the site of the ferry landing.

And, definitely, not sneered at the effort.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Muscled into a Wonderful Meal and a Memory

The place looks runs down. Deserted. 

No one tends to the weathered  pictures on the side of the building or shores up the leaning front porch. 

No. The building is not attractive. Or welcoming. But Lonely Planet and a few other guides say this place, the Russian Samovar restaurant in Nikolaevsk, AK, has  THE BEST food on the Kenai Peninsula.

So we go in.

And are met with a dizzying rainbow of stuff, of women's long dresses on hangers, four folding tables with colorful placemats (few of which match), ornate bowls, spoons, scarves, frames, pictures. The walls, floor and countertops in two rooms vibrate with Russian stuff.

And then some of this Russian stuff moves toward us. It's Nina.

Meet didactic, wacky Nina. A non-stop Russian Old Believer who runs this eatery. With authority. 

She's dressed in classic Russian garb that covers her arms and sweeps the floor.  

"You eat here Russian or on patio?" she inquires, loudly, her Russian accent colorful, frantic, as she whirls around. Picking things up. Putting things down. She doesn't stop moving. Or talking. The beads on her patterned headdress dance across her forehead as she moves and talks. And I have no idea what she means. Because her English is bent and twisted by her native Russian.

"You read this," she says as she passes by, jamming a plastic-covered paper in my hands. I try to read it ( a menu?), but she doesn't stop talking. And it's written in the same fractured English she speaks. "You want borscht, of course," she swirls to my left.  "Two small. And you like Russian tea? You WILL like and I serve you. If you eat Russian, you talk to me and eat here ... I serve one combo. You like. For two."  And on and on she talks and twirls. And, I guess, spends my money.

My brain hurts. She's still talking as she leaves the room and I scratch my head because I think I've just ordered a $60 lunch. How'd that happen? 

Allen and I sit on the patio and give in to her control. Why not? It's fun. And the experience unmatched. We'd never met a woman like Nina before. She jabbers as she stirs the borscht and slices the sausage and heats up the sauerkraut and pelmenis (Siberian raviolis).

After we eat, we pay our bill (yup, $60) and before we get a chance to refuse, she dresses us up like Russian dolls and takes our picture. 

We finally leave (escape?) and I realize I know a lot about Nina. Because she talks constantly. We know about her kids and grandkids still in Russia, about her arthritic knee, her disabled husband, her desire to close the eatery at the end of the season and write a movie.

Look out Hollywood. A whirlwind is headed your way.